Recently, a vibrant teen client told me how much she hates how she looks. From the length of her legs to the freckles on her face, she criticized every inch of her body. She said her “ugly” appearance is the reason everyone at school gave her “weird” looks and why no one invited her to the winter formal.
Sadly this is not the first time I’ve worked with a gorgeous, healthy teen who could not see her natural beauty. In over ten years of coaching teens, I’ve heard everything from “I am too big” to “I hate my stomach” to “If only my nose was a little smaller” and I’ve seen the impact of these negative beliefs: low self-esteem, minimal self-worth, constant worry and fear, and social anxiety. Sometimes these beliefs can spiral into something even worse. Eating disorders, depression, and suicidal ideation have all been linked to poor body image.
The Toxic Cycle
When it comes to body image, most teens’ inner critic is on overdrive. Almost all believe that beauty is the key to popularity, success, and happiness. Sadly, this belief is reinforced almost everywhere they look! Girls are bombarded with images that perpetuate a very specific (and unrealistic) ideal of beauty. They see successful women going to great lengths to maintain an image and being rewarded with fame and fortune. Even at school, the so-called “pretty” girls appear to have all the friends, fun, and opportunities.
Girls have a tendency to resist accepting themselves and believing they are enough because they don’t want to be perceived as snobbish. Instead of honoring their body and appreciating how they look, they self-depricate. It’s not uncommon to hear a group of girls spend hours talking about what they want to change or improve, or what they hate about how they look.
Breaking this toxic cycle is critical for a teen girl’s self-esteem and self-worth. Girls need to learn that appearance is not everything. They need to become critical consumers of media and develop the skills of self-acceptance and self-compassion. They need tools to tame their inner-critic and turn self-deprecation into personal empowerment.
Appearance is not everything.
Help your daughter connect to her personal strengths and values. Teach her that her body is always changing and while it is OK to care about how she looks, her values, goals, and treatment of others are far more important. Share the quote: “Beauty is not in the face, but a light within the heart.” Ask her how she manifests the light within her heart.
Be a critical consumer.
When sucked into Tik-Tok, your teen will lose sight of the fact that much of what she sees has been altered or carefully curated. Frequently remind her that pictures do not tell a whole story. Talk with her about the misconceptions perpetuated by the media. Common Sense Media offers excellent resources to spark meaningful conversations and will sharpen your teen’s critical eye.
Self-acceptance and self-compassion
Teach your daughter that self-acceptance and self-compassion are NOT snobbish. Both involve taking care of her health and well-being and accepting all parts of herself. One of the easiest ways to encourage self-compassion and self-acceptance is to share the concept “be your own best friend.” Talk about how she can care and talk to herself in the same way she would a best friend or treasured family member.
Taming the inner critic
Teach your teen about that critical voice inside her head. Ask her, How do you talk to yourself about yourself? Explore how she feels when she listens to the critical voice and prompt her to examine if that belief is true. When she realizes that her inner critic is not helpful, and not honest, it will be easier for her to think more positively.
Building a healthy body image means equipping your teen to handle the pressures from peers and social media. It means filling her toolbox with the skills of self-compassion and self-acceptance as well as strategies to reframe negative thinking. These practices will promote a healthy self-image and serve as tools in many aspects of her life.